Author: Chris Cook
Two hours later, Willow stared blankly at her screen. Chunks of code and statistical data were scrolling by in the window she had devoted to reporting the progress of the Tara program through Echelon's protective routines. It was a slow process - even with the vast amounts of processor power driving the system, the sheer volume of calculations being run to support Tara meant that it would barely have finished its work by sunrise.
Willow was just finishing her third cup of coffee, her mind entirely detached from the monotony around her, when a beeping startled her. Giles, who had quietly dozed off in a chair thirty minutes ago, awoke with a start and reached for the pager on his belt automatically. He checked the message, looking deeply worried.
"I'm to report to Warren's office at once," he told Willow. "It doesn't say why, but it can't be a routine meeting at this hour. Either he knows about your program and wants me to shut it down, or he knows I'm involved and this meeting will be even less cordial than the last." He shrugged. "Either way, I'll try to buy you as much time as I can. If I'm not back by the time the program's finished, just take the data you get and go. I'll meet up with you later."
Willow nodded, in lieu of being able to think of anything to say. Giles patted her back reassuringly, then got up and headed in the direction of the elevators. He only had to wait a moment for one to arrive, and he settled in for the short wait, and uncomfortable ear-popping rise, as it travelled all the way from three levels below ground to the top of the Cycorp tower.
Secretly he was looking forward to the meeting, despite the almost inevitable end of his employment at Cycorp. He knew Willow well enough to back her program against anything Meers and his security division could come up with - it was no secret they'd wanted Willow working for them, but she had preferred to remain in applications development, away from Warren's direct authority. Soon, probably within hours, she would have evidence of Warren's illegal activities, Miss Summers would have everything she needed to authorise an investigation into Cycorp, and when the board of directors started looking around for someone to lay the blame on, Giles was quite sure Warren's career would be over. So, Giles mused with an uncharacteristic feeling of glee, if he were to now be extremely rude and unpleasant to Warren, it wouldn't matter one little bit.
Giles was just contemplating a variety of strategies to keep Warren frustrated and out of Willow's way for a few hours when the lift shuddered and jerked to a halt. The digital display indicated it was somewhere between floors 42 and 43, and the doors refused to open. Giles stabbed several buttons on the lift's control panel, without result, then finally resorted to the emergency intercom.
"Elevator services will resume shortly," said a synthesised voice as Giles pressed the intercom button, and try as he might he couldn't make the system connect him to the building's maintenance department. He tried his pager and mobile phone, and found both to be receiving no signal. He was wondering if the battery needed changing when his eye fell on the Cycorp logo on the phone - and the pager, and the elevator's control panel. Of course, everything was controlled by the building's service system, which was in turn controlled by the network. With a nasty suspicion forming in his mind, Giles set to work using the edge of the pager's belt clip to begin unscrewing the bolts on the panel.
"No!" wailed Willow. Everything had been going wonderfully, and then in an instant it had all fallen to pieces. The progress reports from Tara had ceased - the program was still there, somewhere, but it was being kept out of contact with Willow's machine. Some new security system had dropped into place out of nowhere, nothing that Willow had ever seen before - and she had analysed the network pretty thoroughly. It must be something newly-loaded, she concluded - perhaps Warren had been notified of her progress through the system, and introduced some sort of emergency program into Echelon's repertoire.
Whatever it was, it was thorough. Within the space of a few seconds Willow's terminal had been taken over and shut down, followed by all those on the floor. Willow raced from cubicle to cubicle, checking every screen, but all were unresponsive. The floor supervisor machine, tucked away in a rarely-used corner, reported only that 'Rain 7.0' was running on every machine, and interrupting all other program functions. Willow had never heard of a program called Rain, nor had she ever seen a security program behave so violently - so far as elegance went, it was practically carpet-bombing the network in its efforts to trace and deactivate Tara.
Willow started towards the lifts, but hesitated. If she'd never heard of Rain, that meant it certainly hadn't been fully tested in the Cycorp network - and if it hadn't been tested, there was no telling what havoc it might cause in the computer-controlled building. She took the stairs instead, wedging a swivel chair into the door to prevent it from closing behind her. A malfunction of the door locks was a remote possibility at best, but Willow was feeling slightly paranoid.
The floors above her were all low priority offices, much like her own - their terminals would be just as useless. But below, in the two levels even further below ground, there might be machines still active. Down there were the machine laboratories, with a host of isolated terminals, secure back-up systems and god-knows-what, to make sure the extremely delicate and expensive engineering experiments being conducted weren't interrupted by anything up to and including a major earthquake. Willow skipped the S-4 level and went all the way down to S-5, the most secure lab. Even if the Rain program did try to shut down S-5's computers, it would take a few minutes, and given a functioning terminal Willow could do a lot with a few minutes.
S-5 was an impressive facility, a huge cavern of a room, with a ceiling ten metres high. Metal catwalks cris-crossed the space above, allowing the level's complement of technicians and engineers access to all sides of the intricate super-machines they worked on. Now it was deserted, lit mainly by dull blue standby lights, just enough to keep a visitor from bumping into things. Willow quickly found the supervisor machine, and at first despaired when she saw the Rain program already infiltrating the terminals. But there was one, she noticed, that seemed unaffected. The control terminal for the Quantum Storage project was free of the invasive security program, and seemed to be still able to function and access the building's network as normal.
Willow wove her way through the huge steel girders supporting the experimental equipment and found the computer she was looking for. It was set to one side of a space set up very much like a firing range - at one end a set of pedestals with gleaming metal shapes, a sphere, a cube, a pyramid, at the other, a bulky cylinder festooned with power feeds and data cables. Willow remembered reading something about the Quantum Storage project in one of the company's internal newsletters - if she had understood it right, it was some sort of procedure involving high-powered lasers and converting matter into an 'energy form' that would allow it to be stored electronically. It had been purely theoretical when Willow had heard of it - there had been some debate as to whether it was even possible to 'digitise' an object without physically destroying it, whether the resulting energy form was the original itself, or just an identical information duplicate. By the looks of things, the engineers in S-5 had made it to the practical stage of the project.
Any other time Willow would have been fascinated by the physics involved, but her concerns at the moment were solely on convincing the terminal's access system that she was supposed to be using it, and then finding Tara and a weakness in the Rain system. She logged in using a high-level password that she wasn't supposed to have, and set about searching the network as soon as the computer gave her the connection she needed. The Rain program was everywhere, slamming blocks down over practically every input/output device in the building. Except this one machine. Willow ensured that Rain wasn't present in her machine, then set up a search to find Tara. But she was bothered, nonetheless - every other computer in the building, even ultra-secure ones here in S-5, had been infiltrated. She couldn't see what was different about the one she was using, and even though she didn't want to protest her luck, something in her nature rebelled at the notion that she had just been lucky. Computers didn't operate on luck - there were no random factors, every function would be completed exactly the same way, down to the last byte, every time.
Through Willow's intense concentration on the computer, she became aware of a whirring noise, close behind her. She put it out of her mind for a moment, blaming a faulty air conditioner or flickering neon light, but when it clicked and stopped, followed by an increasing hum of power, her curiosity got the better of her. She swivelled her chair around and found herself staring straight down the barrel of the Quantum Storage laser, pointing at right-angles to its firing range, directly at her. She frowned, and was just putting her weight on her legs to stand when it fired.